First Person: The Story of a Storytelling Course

Katie Dolan leads students to learn together
four smiling people stand together with a black background.
The Storytelling class attended Beyond Words, a play about Irene Pepperberg’s work on animal cognition with African Grey Parrots. L to R: Irene Pepperberg, Katie Dolan, Hadiyah Edwards (CM student) and Teresa Peyton (CM student). Photo: Deborah Kochevar

Instructor Katie Dolan, M.B.A., M.F.A., M.E.S., M.A., discusses the evolution of the storytelling course at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and shares reflections from participants. 

We begin Storytelling for Conservation and Animal Advocacy with the story of a Cherokee woman who, wandering the woods mourning the death of her infant, finds two orphaned cougar kits and nurses them until they can survive on their own. In gratitude, cougars always leave a portion of their kills for humans and other animals. This indigenous awareness of natural interconnections is confirmed by studies in Yellowstone, showing cougars leave behind up to forty percent of their kills, helping feed several dozen bird and mammal species. The simple story highlights key concepts: the biological connections between humans and other animals, the ecosystem benefits of apex predators, and finding a balance between despair and hope. I then share my personal, life-altering glimpse of a mountain lion here in Colorado, which spurred me to become an advocate for their protection, write a children's book about the species, and gather signatures for a ballot initiative to ban trophy hunting.

Compelling storytelling is essential in this media-saturated world, where the average American adult is exposed to over 4,000 advertisements (another form of story) each day. We look at how to get people's attention and the elements of a good story, which should spark curiosity, deal with conflicts, and chronicle the consequences. We discuss questions such as: Do animal advocacy and conservation stories differ from other stories? How is technology changing conservation stories? How does animal sentience research affect advocacy and conservation stories? Conservation stories are often part of a set of larger stories, so where are the edges? 

When Christopher A. Whittier, D.V.M., Ph.D., V97, director of the M.S. in Conservation Medicine (MCM)program at Cummings School, wanted to offer his master's students training in photography, social media, writing, and communications techniques, he shared his idea with me. From my professional and philanthropic work, I know a diverse network of experts in conservation and animal organizations, while Chris knows MCM program graduates who are excellent speakers. Together, we developed a syllabus, found a time slot that worked for two master's programs and taught the course in the spring of 2021. 

The next time, the syllabus was modified to include additional creative assignments, and the course was offered to veterinary students. The resulting one-credit online course provides the only opportunity for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine., M.S. in Animals and Public Policy, and MCM students to take a class and learn together. The online format allows us to talk with a range of conservation and animal advocacy storytellers. We trace the history of storytelling, from indigenous tales to Aesop's fables, Aristotle and Pliny's divergent views of animals, Darwin, and the current explosion in our understanding of animal intelligence and emotions. However, the all-online format also makes it more difficult to know individual students and their interests. To get around this challenge, I've scheduled a phone call with each student as the course begins. It helps to understand students' career goals, what they are reading, what pets they love, and their research interests. 

After talking with a researcher for a national organization, one student noted, "Grounding advocacy in both science and ethics is a passion of mine, and it was refreshing to hear more detail about how Project Coyote leads with that as a foundation. I loved hearing about how to shift from conflict to coexistence in communities and how coexistence should be a staple in reintroduction plans (and arguably all community planning). Enjoyed hearing about the various ways their group engages communities and stakeholders. Also, we had an interesting discussion about nativism and cats! It was a thoughtful, fantastic presentation. Very appreciative he was able to take time to talk with our class!" 

After zooming with a writer/whale researcher/photographer, another student wrote, "Tom Muscill's talk was super intriguing, I loved hearing the behind-the-scenes for the films and what goes into them. I'm sure most of us can agree that we grew up on nature and animal documentaries, so just seeing the person behind the camera and what goes into it.... wow, it's breathtaking in a way. I have such an admiration for his work - without it, a lot of people would never get into conservation or even hear about a lot of animals we know about now. Yet, even with such an impact, he strives for betterment by being conservative with the carbon footprint of filming, advocating for releasing B-roll, and so much more - what an excellent person and a treasure to listen to. I could have listened to him go on about filming all day, honestly. Today in our MCM Human Dimensions class, we watched his latest film, The Answer to Everything. Dr. Felicia Nutter happened to find it and shared it with us because it was relevant to our lecture, so it's so funny that it coincided like that."

During last year's spring semester, several students successfully published their creative storytelling in blogs and posts. One stunning montage by Kelsie Belanger about moths and the web of life went viral. Another student found her externship through a guest speaker. And one student wrote perhaps the most flattering assessment, "I was telling my friend yesterday that this was the best class I have ever taken. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful feedback (with additional resources) to all of us! Thank you also for the guest speakers."

Watching these students excitedly respond to a guest speaker on carnivore conservation, I wonder about the future of carnivores and other wildlife. Will they be able to experience, like me, what Wallace Stegner eloquently describes as "the tawny glimpse" of a cougar disappearing into the wilderness? Hopefully, good storytelling will help ensure a future for our wildlife.